'Joe was good to everybody'
BY TONI CASHNELLI
The sitting room at Little Sisters overflowed with friends who were there for Joe. That’s because Joe was always there for them.
"He always had time to talk to people, always had that bright smile" was how one woman described the relationship retirees had with fellow resident Fr. Joe Rigali at St. Paul’s Archbishop Leibold Home in Cincinnati. At the reception preceding Joe’s funeral on Dec. 5, it wasn’t his assignments they talked about. It was the connections he made along the way.
"Fr. Joe was good to everybody," said Bonita Greene, a resident who met Joe 40 years ago when he came here to visit his mother, Anna. "All he had to do was hear you had a problem, and he would talk you through it." Admittedly, his appeal was more than spiritual. "I always asked him why he became a priest, because he was too handsome to become a priest."
If this was a cross, Joe never complained. "He never seemed to complain about anything," said Lawrence Renaud, a student at Thomas More College when Joe was in campus ministry. "Even when he was dealt a bad hand" – like news of terminal cancer – "he knew how to say something positive. He made lemonade out of lemons."
Fr. Tom Speier remembered Joe "sacrificing himself. He tried to retire four or five times. Every time he wanted to retire he would take another job nobody wanted," like helping to rebuild St. Mary of the Angels Parish in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and the death of beloved pastor Bart Pax.
It was Lawrence, a loyal visitor, who recently asked Joe, "You got any photo albums?", then photographed 173 snapshots to create a slide show for the funeral. "I will miss his smile, his laughter, his friendship," said Lawrence, one of many who struggled to keep their emotions in check.
Eyes red from tears, Stephanie Gartrell described the past year as Joe’s caregiver. Until the end, "He was always active, ready for anything we had planned. He was just a good, humble man, no different than anybody else."
Little Sisters like Mary Imelda, the supervisor on Joe’s floor, knew him better than most. "One thing you should write," she said, "is that he was always grateful. He always said he was ‘peachy’."
Glory to God
At the funeral it was homilist Fr. Fred Link’s job to tie this all together. His role, he said, was "not to extol the deceased, rather to extol the Lord Jesus, who has given our brother eternal life. When I came in church today and stood in front of the body, I saw another friar standing next to me and I said, ‘Luscious Lucius,’" the nickname fawning females gave Joe years ago. Fred then turned to see "the person next to me was not a friar; it was a Little Sister." Ooops.
Fred wondered "as Joe went through his ministerial life, maybe that was a source of temptation for him. Most of us don’t have anyone to call us ‘luscious’. God certainly called Joe his beloved. We extol God today who chose Joe. If today’s celebration is to have any meaning or significance, it is in accepting once again our call to be bearers of the Good News.
"When I got the readings [Joe chose], I said, ‘Yes, yes, it’s Joe. He’s giving God all the glory." What struck Fred was the passage from 2 Corinthians: "But we hold this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing power may be of God and not from us."
"We’re weak and fragile," Fred said. "Joe knew his limitations. I had in my last ministry [as Provincial Minister] a chance to see this side of Joe," the side that revealed, "‘I don’t have it all together’, but he placed himself as an earthen vessel for God" to serve his people.
"God has been so good"
In a message Joe wrote to be read at his funeral, he echoed the Gospel reading from Matthew that begins with praise for the Father and ends with, "my yoke is easy and my burden is light." In this letter of gratitude, "Joe said, ‘God has been so good to me and blessed me in so many ways,’" according to Fred. "He celebrated even the fact that God was embracing him with Sister Death."
A Provincial Chronicle from 1962 quotes Joe saying of the friars’ presence at Bishop Luers High School, "It is good for us to be here." In his ministerial life, "Joe had perhaps 25 different ministerial assignments," Fred said, adding, "There were those who would say he was not very dependable. But it doesn’t take longer than one or two years to affect people’s lives. I would think everywhere he was Joe would say, ‘It is good for me to be here.’"
The proof of that was in condolences Fred read from around the country, notes that revealed the impact of "this instrument of God, this earthen vessel who was anointed. He’s still with us in Jesus and he’s blessing us."
Our prayer today, Fred said, "is that we catch Joe’s spirit and realize our awesome dignity and realize that wherever the Lord takes us, it is good for us to be here."
Putting himself last
Celebrant Fr. Frank Jasper shared that sentiment. "I lived with Fr. Joe for a short time at St. Leonard, and he was always incredibly gracious and hospitable. He was always generous in meeting the needs of others and placing them above his own, coming out of retirement to take on problematic situations. I’ve always seen him as a model myself, to emulate the virtues he projected."
The sharing continued after Mass as residents, friars, and Little Sisters lingered at the slide show playing on the TV screen. They saw Joe proudly posing with his mom and dad; dancing with students; preaching in Jamaica; enjoying what would be his final birthday.
Two friends reminisced about their last visits with Joe. "He didn’t go around like a sick person," said one man. And the other agreed, "He was such a good guy, wasn’t he?" No one could argue with that.